The written word has remained a powerful force throughout history. Particularly since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, the ability of books to influence how people think and act has been well understood. Perhaps it is for this reason that there are hundreds of lists containing the titles of works that have been outlawed at one time or another. It is still a major issue today, as shown by the running of events like banned book week every September to draw attention to censored works.
Not all of the books on this list have been banned, but they all, in their own way, have provoked vigorous controversy, either immediately after publication, or in subsequent years. In chronological order, here are 12 books which have provoked sharp disagreements for various reasons.
12) Malleus Maleficarum
This work was published in 1487 and became the manual for the thousands of witch trials that took place throughout Europe over the centuries that followed. The book describes in detail, how witches can be identified and prosecuted. The controversy it initially provoked was thanks to the explicit association with the Catholic church mentioned in the volume. Although the church sought to deny its support for the book, it was repeatedly reprinted with the supportive comments of the church included. Later, the book’s numerous outrageous claims, such as the assertion that women who did not cry during their trial were to be considered witches, came under strong criticism.
11) Dialogues On The Two Chief World Systems
In 1632, the astronomer Galileo Galilei published his Dialogue, based on his scientific experiments, which among other things, explained the movements of the planets. Within a year, he had been summoned to Rome to be examined by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. He was condemned as a heretic and forced to recant his positions in his work. The controversial issue for the church was that his book argued that the earth moved around the sun, whereas at the time, the divine doctrine was that Earth was at the center of the universe. Galileo signed a statement abandoning his views and was placed under house arrest thereafter.
This satirical work published by the famous enlightenment French philosopher, Voltaire was brought out in 1759. It tells the story of Candide, who travels around a large part of the world and experiences a variety of misfortunes and incredible adventures. Due to its ridiculing of institutions of authority, such as the army and religion, it was immediately banned. Aware of its controversial character, Voltaire wrote the work under a pseudonym, signing it “Monsieur le docteur Ralph.” Although the powers that be did their best to prevent the book from seeing the light of day, 30,000 copies were sold in the first year alone. This made it a bestseller at the time.
Since its publication, Frankenstein has been involved in several controversies. The first was over its authorship. Many could not believe that the teenage Mary Shelley, could possibly have written such a complicated work when it first emerged, attributing it instead to her husband, Percy Shelley. This now seems to have been settled, with the general belief that Percy likely edited the work and wrote some minor parts, but the work was overwhelmingly Mary’s. The themes of the story, where a man creates another life form from his scientific experiments, also drew accusations from Christian groups that it encouraged the idea that humans could play the role of God.
8) The Awakening
Released in 1899, Kate Chopin’s novel tells the story of a married woman’s pursuit of her desires, which result in disaster. The month’s following its release produced a deluge of biting criticism from virtually all across the United States. The themes of infidelity, sexual freedom for women and the oppressive burden of religion and the church, provoked the wrath of the literary establishment. This reaction was made all the more intense because of the social and political conditions of the time. Women and broad layers of workers were beginning to demand greater rights and freedoms, rebelling against traditional structures. Conservative elements therefore saw Chopin’s work as a sign of the growing opposition to their dominance and attacked it vociferously. The result was that the novel remained relatively unknown for several decades, until interest was revived in it during the 1930s.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel drew hostile reaction from the outset due to its portrayal of a middle-aged man’s love for a 12-year-old girl. He struggled to have the work published in the US, with one of the publishers he approached describing it as “pure pornography.” The book was banned in several locations, including in Australia, for seven years. In spite of the harsh criticism, the work has found a place as one of the classics of 20th century literature.
6) To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s 1960 classic telling the story of a young girl and her father, an attorney who is defending an African American accused of sexual assault, came under fire both for its depiction of racial issues and its presentation of sexual assault. The main point of contention has been over whether the title is appropriate for use in school classrooms, where it has been taught since the early 1960s. School districts in the United States and Canada have banned it at one time or another. In response, the book’s defenders have countered that it laid bare important truths about life at the time, touching on issues of social class, race relations and growing up.
5) Griff nach der Weltmacht
When Fritz Fischer’s work on Germany’s role in triggering World War I was published in the early 1960s (in English as Germany’s aims in the First World War), the general consensus promoted by German historians was that Berlin had not deliberately set out to fight a conflict in 1914. Fischer’s detailed and thorough research uncovered considerable evidence, proving that the government had planned for a war and actively sought to bring it about. Although he did not place sole responsibility on Germany, he insisted that it was partially responsible and that historians in other countries should work to uncover the plans their governments had developed. His conclusions provoked a series of debates among historians that have continued until today.
4) Satanic Verses
There has perhaps not been a book in recent decades that evoked such a ferocious response as Rushdie’s novel, when it was published in 1988. Bookshops were bombed, copies of the book were burned and the author was accused of blasphemy. Ayatollah Khomeini, head of the Iranian state, issued a decree calling for Rushdie’s death. The reaction was due to the portrayal of the Islamic Religion in the work. Rushdie used a medieval Christian name when referring to Mohammed, which had been associated with attempts to present the Islamic prophet as a fraud, claimed that Islam was a deceitful religion, and stated that Mohammed, at the behest of Satan, had made a bargain with the residents of Mecca, allowing them to worship other deities. Rushdie remained in hiding for a decade, and still receives death threats today.
3) Harry Potter Series
It may be difficult to believe, but J.K. Rowling’s popular tales of wizardry and magic have had their fair share of controversy to deal with. Ever since the first book was published, criticism has come from groups claiming that the story encourages witchcraft. Evangelical Christian organisations have attacked the books’ supposed use of pagan imagery and stated that this represents a risk to young readers. In the United States, Harry Potter books have been burned on several occasions. This has been accompanied by vehement denunciations of the consequences of reading the book, with one publisher declaring that “The Potter books open a doorway that will put untold millions of kids in to hell.”
2) The Da Vinci Code
The central contention in Dan Brown’s 2006 novel–that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and had a child with her–was always going to ruffle some feathers. Due to this being in sharp contradiction to what is told in the Bible, churches responded angrily to the reemergence of this long-running debate. The origins of the dispute go back to the early Christian period when the Bible was composed, and some accounts of the life of Jesus were not included. In particular, the so-called Gospel of Mary, believed to have been written in the second century AD, contains a version of Christ’s life which supports Brown’s claims.
1) The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
The British biologist’s 2006 bestseller makes the argument that the existence of God should be considered a scientific hypothesis like all others. Criticism came in response to Dawkins’ book from a number of directions. His dismissal of a belief in God based on tradition and revelation, was attacked by theologians, but historians also said that some of his research on important historical figures was poor. Several public debates have been held involving Dawkins, and a wide range of books have been written in direct response to his thesis. One critic entitled his work,” The Dawkins Delusion”. In Turkey, where the book had sold 6,000 copies, the state prosecutor launched an investigation in 2007, to decide if the book’s publisher could be convicted of attacking Holy values. However, a court dismissed the charges.